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Dimbleby – Food imports should be certified sustainable

Overseas food producers wanting to export to the UK should have to prove they meet UK environmental and animal welfare standards, according to the author of a new national food strategy for England.

Henry Dimbleby said the UK government should only agree to cut tariffs in new trade deals on products which meet core standards. He suggested that certification schemes should be established so that producers wishing to sell into the UK market can prove they meet minimum requirements.

The recommendation formed the first part of Dimbleby’s two-part food strategy for England which was unveiled this week. The first report makes urgent recommendations to tackle the dual challenges to the food system posed by covid-19 and Britain’s impending exit from the EU. Part two, due in 2021, will present a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system.

Dimbleby said there was justifiable concern about opening up UK markets to cheaper, low-standard imports which would undercut domestic producers and “make a nonsense of our progressive farming policies”. However, he said blanket legislation requiring other countries to meet the UK’s food guidelines would make striking trade deals “nigh-on impossible”.

Instead, he suggested certification schemes for importers should at a minimum cover animal welfare, environmental and climate concerns where the impact of particular goods is severe, for example, beef reared on land recently cleared of rainforest. The core standards should be defined by the newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission.

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of Sustain, although welcoming of Dimbleby’s broad vision expressed disappointment at the recommendation which he said risked creating a “dual tariff system” that would see products that are currently banned authorised for sale.

Dimbleby said the government should be prepared for future trade deals to be scrutinised by Parliament. He recommended that it adopt a statutory responsibility to commission and publish an independent impact report on any proposed trade agreements to consider economic productivity; food safety and public health; the environment and climate change; society and labour; human rights; and animal welfare.

The government should also adopt a statutory duty to give Parliament the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal.

Dimbleby’s report also set out recommendations to improve the diets of the most deprived children in England by expanding eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit; extending the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to all areas in England; and increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week.

Dimbleby also took aim at food businesses “whose packaging is increasingly littered with boasts that, if not quite lies, are at least wilfully misleading” with claims such as low-fat used to disguise high sugar content.

He supported measures outlined in the government’s new obesity strategy to restrict advertising promotions of unhealthy foods but said there was still lots to do to address the structural drivers of poor diet that particularly impact those on low incomes.

Although the environment did not feature heavily in part one of the strategy, Dimbleby said climate change was currently the biggest threat to food security. He said covid-19 “painful though it is may soon pale into insignificance compared to the turbulence created by climate change and the collapse in biodiversity”.

The National Food Strategy was commissioned by Michael Gove when he was environment secretary. It aims to transform the food system for the benefit of current and future generations, covering the entire food chain from field to fork

Part two of the strategy will include a root and branch examination of the food system and the economics that shape it. It will also investigate issues of climate change, biodiversity, pollution, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases and sustainable use of resources.